Bush's Midterm Challenge

President Bush's success in rallying the GOP for this year's midterm elections may affect his successor in 2008.
President Bush's success in rallying the GOP for this year's midterm elections may affect his successor in 2008. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

President Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday night marks the opening of a midterm election year eagerly anticipated by Democrats and fraught with worries for Republicans, whose hopes in November may depend in large part on how successfully Bush can turn around his troubled presidency.

After his reelection victory in 2004, Bush often pointed out that he would never again be on a ballot as a candidate. But the coming year in many ways represents another national campaign for the president, aimed at preserving the gains his party has made in the past five years, as well as rehabilitating a reputation that has come under brutal assault from the opposition in recent months.

There is no doubt that Bush intends to run this campaign as forcefully as if he were on the ballot himself. He ended 2005, the worst year of his presidency, with an aggressive defense of his Iraq policies, and he has begun the new year with an uncompromising justification of his policy of warrantless domestic surveillance.

Tuesday's speech, with its massive prime-time audience, may be the most important forum Bush has all year to try to seize the initiative from the Democrats and frame the election season on his terms. But he will be standing in the House as a far less formidable politician than when he stood on the same podium a year ago. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Bush with a lower approval rating than any postwar president at the start of his sixth year in office -- with the exception of Richard M. Nixon, who was crippled by Watergate.

Bush's approval rating now stands at 42 percent, down from 46 percent at the beginning of the year, although still three percentage points higher than the low point of his presidency last November.

The poll also shows that the public prefers the direction Democrats in Congress would take the country as opposed to the path set by the president, that Americans trust Democrats over Republicans to address the country's biggest problems and that they strongly favor Democrats over Republicans in their vote for the House.

The political stakes this year are especially high. What happens will affect not only the final years of Bush's presidency, but also will shape what is likely to be an even bigger election for his successor in 2008. Republicans have been on the ascendancy throughout the Bush presidency, but they begin the year not only resigned to some losses in Congress but also fearful that, under a worst-case scenario, an eruption of voter dissatisfaction could cost them control of the House or Senate or both.

Uniting Republicans

Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, said the key from Bush's vantage point is maintaining near-universal support for the president from Republicans. Last fall, when Bush's approval ratings fell to their lowest point, he suffered erosion among Republicans, but later polls have shown that he regained some of that support. "As long as he can hold support of his own partisans, he can keep the Republicans in Congress from getting too nervous," Jacobson said.

Bush also has some intangible assets. The first is that Bush has proved to be a skilled and effective political candidate who beat the odds in the past and would like nothing better than to upset conventional assumptions again this year. The other is that Democrats must take maximum advantage of every opportunity because the number of truly competitive House districts is low by historical standards.

Bush won reelection in 2004 with a lower approval rating than any other reelected president of the post-World War II era, save for Harry S. Truman. Rhodes Cook, an independent political analyst, said Bush's overall approval rating may be less damaging politically than it was for other presidents. "His strength is in fundraising and mobilizing the base," Cook said. "He can still do both very well."

Democrats see the political landscape as the most favorable to them since Bush took office. They view the war in Iraq as a continuing political burden for the administration, and hope to reap gains on the corruption issue, epitomized by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. "Any reasonable reading of the trends would suggest that Democrats can expect significant gains this November," said Paul Harstad, a Democratic pollster. "That includes historical patterns, Republican scandals and a growing realization of the insidious cost of unchallenged Republican rule."

But Bush and his team believe they can change the equation. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove put Democrats on notice a week ago when he promised a campaign of sharp contrasts on national security, taxes and the economy, and judicial philosophy. That signaled a rerun of previous Bush campaigns, in which Republicans forced Democrats into a debate on national security and terrorism, polarized the electorate, and used those and other issues to mobilize and turn out rank-and-file Republicans in large numbers.

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